Toronto – Fort York

As you can probably tell from my past postings, I love historic buildings. Especially old military buildings. Medieval city walls, castles, forts, palaces, you name it, if it’s stone and old, I like visiting. There is a small chunk of 18th century history in the middle of downtown Toronto. Fort York was the original master defense for Toronto, perched as it was on the shoreline of Lake Ontario and guarding the mouth of the harbor of York (as Toronto was then known). Today it sits a good three hundred yards or more from the shoreline, landfill having been created to expand the salable real estate in the city.

Fort York Skyline
Fort York Skyline

As you can see, the city has considerably encroached upon the fort.Today it is hemmed in by rail yards on the north and an elevated expressway to the south. A typical 18th century fort, it has low walls of stone on the interior and rammed earth on the exterior, in response to the changing military technology of the period. Before, you wanted tall walls made out of stone to make it hard for enemy infantry to get over them. With the advent of more powerful, accurate cannon, tall stone walls made for a very easy target that became a weapon itself when struck by cannon balls.

Fort York Wall
Fort York Wall

The fort itself is remarkably well preserved, given all it has been through. It was the site of a major engagement in the War of 1812, when several thousand Colonial troops took on the British Army units stationed at the fort. Ultimately, the colonials defeated the British, who, in a forced retreat, blew up the stone powder magazine to prevent the gunpowder from falling into Yankee hands. The powder magazine as it stands today was built in 1815, otherwise all the buildings on the property are from the late 1790s/first decade of the 1800s.

Fort York Magazine
Fort York Magazine

Here is a photo of the front gate to the fort, through which visitors enter today. I’m assuming that the wood is (relatively) modern, but the ironwork is original. The gate has a door within a door, large enough for a single soldier to stoop through, or to point a canon out of. This is the latch to that door-within-a-door.

Fort York Door
Fort York Door

I took the guided tour of the fort, which largely focused on the enlisted and officers living quarters. There was a vast difference in quality between life as an enlisted man and life as an officer. The enlisted men were shacked up two to a bunk, roughly 100 to a room. If you were married, you and your wife could share a bunk, and when the kids came, they could sleep on the floor under the bunk. Officers had suites of rooms to themselves, a parlor and a dining room with catered food service and a bar.

The guide was excellent and very knowledgeable, and he came complete with early 19th century period uniform. He was one of the few people I met in Toronto who had even a hint of a “Canadian” accent – he spoke with the characteristic rounded vowels, and had a little bit of a lilt to his speech pacing. Regardless, he painted a very clear picture of what life was like in the fort for someone in the army.

Fort York Guide
Fort York Guide

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